Leica Made Me a Better Photographer

[Cover photo by Stephanie Lee]

It’s a popular refrain; “the camera doesn’t matter, buying a Leica won’t make you a better photographer.”

And while it’s true, I think the camera does matter and buying a Leica did make me a better photographer.

You’re LOLing so loud that I think I can actually hear you 😉

If you’re interested, I’m going to tell you the short version of my story.  It may not be your story and buying a Leica may not make you a better photographer, but this is what happened with me.

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Leica M6 TTL .85 | Leitz 5cm 1.5 Summarit

I am an engineer by trade and have always enjoyed tinkering with mechanical and electronic devices.  I am endlessly fascinated by vintage devices; cars, milkshake mixers, fans, typewriters, telephones, radios and, of course, cameras.  When I got my first K1000 for Photo 101 in college, the classic camera bug bit me (Ken Rockwell hadn’t coined the term “G.A.S.” yet.)  I bought up every cheap, cool camera that I saw.  The weirder and wilder the claim of greatness, the better.  I did some repair work and much of my early photography was really, in all reality, just test rolls.

I always wanted a Leica but, from atop my hoard of mostly functional, non-professionally serviced, sub-$100 Pentax’s, Yashica’s, Agfas, Voigtlanders etc, I thought that I couldn’t afford Leica.

But slowly, I dipped my toe in the Leica water.  I bought a cheap 90mm Elmar off eBay.  I bought a friend’s Bessa R2.  But the watershed moment was selling my old Land Rover to finance the purchase of, from a reliable camera retailer, a black chrome M6 TTL .85 new in box, vintage 1999.

And I remember that when I first opened that plastic clamshell, and saw that tiny, precise, perfect rangefinder staring back up at me, I immediately felt unworthy of such a thing.

I didn’t want to ever feel that way again.

Little by little, I matured as a photographer (or so I think!) and distanced myself from the distractions of repair and collecting.  Nothing wrong with either, if those are your goals or you have time for them in addition to photography.  But I haven’t.  And my goal was to have more good photos to my name, than cameras.

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Leica M6 TTL .85 | Leitz 90mm f2 Summicron Pre-ASPH

No more Good Will Hunting for bargains.  I only bought serviced gear from reliable retailers and only gear I expected to really use.  I sold off and gave away a lot of my cheaper, less used cameras and lenses.

And with all the time and money I saved from not buying things I didn’t need that may or may not have worked, I shot more.  I shot better.

I stopped reading all the gear reviews, well, not nearly as many anyway!  And started reading and re-reading actual advice on taking photographs, processing, printing and displaying them as well as studying the work of successful shooters.

I started a small business.  I started this blog.  I started to get my photos published and shown all over the place.

For whatever it means, my most favorited and liked photos on Facebook and Flickr, and most of my more widely known and financially successful, published photographs were taken on Leica or upper tier Nikon bodies.  Like I said, for whatever that means!

The camera does matter.  Insofar as to if it inspires you to take your very best photos.  Not because one camera brand or model is inherently better than another.  If you find yourself drowning in a sea of affordable film cameras, telling people the camera doesn’t matter, maybe reconsider your philosophy?

And yes, Leica made me a better photographer.  Insofar as its expense and enjoyment of use caused me to focus my time and resources on actually shooting.

When you shoot Leica, unless you’re wealthy, you’re not going to buy, and keep, any Leica gear you don’t absolutely need.  And there’s no need to obsess over gear, you already have what is often considered, the best.  All that remains is to put your investments to good use!  And that is what I’m still trying to do!

Happy shooting, no matter what brand you are running.  And thanks for reading!

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Leica M6 TTL .85 | Leitz 5cm 1.5 Summarit

 

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19 thoughts on “Leica Made Me a Better Photographer

  1. Excellent article! Although I don’t own a Leica, I have come to the same realization. I sold off most of my “collection” and now I am shooting just a couple of Pentaxes that I really like (and that all operate virtually the same way.) Instead of spending my time researching other “cool” cameras and gear that I should get, I am now spending my time learning how to make better photos with the cameras and gear that I already have.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I just read the blog since you mentioned it! I’ve actually been able to avoid GAS on 50mm lenses because I have found that 35mm primes most closely match my “normal view” of the world and therefore I prefer them over the 50. And I figure that I can always zoom with my feet if I need the extra 15mm of reach. But it seems that the 50/1.2 is an amazing piece of glass!

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      2. I don’t want to poke the bear, so to speak, but I do find it useful to own a couple versions of a focal length if each presents significant and unique advantages. I have owned all the 50 SMC-M lenses but kept only the 1.7 and 1.2. I have been unable to narrow my Leica 50’s down from three but I used to have four. So there’s some progress!

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  2. I get bad GAS every once in a while, I suppose there are different ways to fight it. I’m one of those guys that would rather spend $25 on a fixed-lens rangefinder at a thrift store than 100 times that on a Leica; it gets you 90% of the way there for 1% of the price. But when GAS hit me the worst was when my local camera shop had an f/1.5 Summarit for an insanely good price, that sent me toward trying the rangefinder thing with a Canon 7. And the thing is, if I used that camera enough I’m sure I’d feel good about saying that I can take the same pics you can while spending 1/10th the price you did on a camera body. Can’t say that though. In fact I’m also just stuck on Pentax just like ^Nate. It works for me and I’ll agree that sticking with that one system has been good for honing my craft. But don’t try to convince me to get the Tomioka 55mm f/1.2, not gonna happen unless I find one at a garage sale for a steal…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joe, luckily we are a diverse community and have many approaches. I used to be the $25 fixed lens thrift store guy. But after doing that for many years, I found that it was hindering my photography though. With just a few GOOD cameras that I am learning very well, I develop muscle memory and use each one better than when I kept jumping from cam to cam. I’d also find that because I had so many cheapies laying around, I wouldn’t use one for years, come back to it and find, now it no longer works. This made me sad to have all these cams and be unable to justify servicing them all.

      When I got into Leica, I still enjoyed collecting and trying new items but the costs went up on each lens/accessory/camera so I had to be more deliberate with my purchases. My M6 has gone up about $500 in cost since I bought it. My cheapies are often hard to even give away. Which is why I still have many of them. I don’t want to trash them but I can barely find a good home for them. Not a great situation I want to leave my kids with. Rather leave them with a pile of Leicas that they MAY be able to do something with.

      The Canon 7 is a great platform and a perfect way to get into interchangeable lens RFs. It will probably need to be calibrated to make good use of that Summarit and then we talked about the need for a XOONS hood before.

      Pentax is wonderful too. It was my main system for a time but I moved to Nikon and keep only a few Pentax favorites for fun use. Another example of selling off many to afford a few!

      It’s good you do what you do and provide great blogs on a number of cameras, Joe. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Agree entirely on the point that some cameras inspire you in a way others don’t. I wouldn’t mind a Leica but can’t afford one (and don;t have a Land Rover to sell), but I do have an FM2 which is a joy to use. I think it also helps that this was the camera I dreamed of when it first appeared in the 70’s when I was a poor teenager and had no hope of owning one. I still browse the used camera sites but when I’m tempted I often ask if another camera will be better than my FM2 and the answer is invariably no.

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    1. The FM2 is fantastic! I have a pair for wedding photography. No need for a Leica if you have something you already enjoy and pushes you to do your best work. I felt this way about Nikkormats for a while but then, despite having them overhauled, I kept having issues with jumpy meter needles. So then I moved into the much more expensive FM2n’s and was able to stop with SLR’s. Leica stopped my interest in buying other rangefinders in the same way. Once you have a GOOD camera that does what you need, you can stop buying and trying everything else.

      Glad to hear you don’t have GAS, Olli, it’s a slipper slope away from actual photography! Happy shooting.

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      1. So would you consider a post at some point discussing how you use the FM2s in the context of wedding photography? I’m trying to work my way to the point of having more confidence in my ability to judge exposure settings without relying to heavily on the meter. I imagine in a wedding situation you have to be able to work quickly to get shots as they arise and that would seem to require a level of control and mastery that’s beyond me at this point. I’d be interested in knowing more about your practice in this regard.

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      2. Thanks for your interest, Olli. I have several drafts of blogs for “advice on shooting 35mm film at weddings” but haven’t quite found my voice on them yet. Partly why I’ve come to rely on my FM2n’s, F2sb and M6 TTL for wedding work is the three LED meter display. It’s easy to understand at a glance but sort of requires the shooter to have a ballpark concept. Sort of like shooting a rangefinder. If your focus is WAY off with a rangefinder, or your exposure WAY off with this type of meter, it’s going to take a moment to figure out how to hone it in. But if you get it in the ballpark by guessing, you then can use the meter (rangefinder in that example) to hone in your settings.

        To be perfectly honest, because I’m only using manual bodies and a basic center-weighted averaging meter, my work is not super accurate. I regularly miss exposure and focus during fast paced moments at weddings. But using print film helps reel that in and and film in general, I think has a roll off to the focus that allows it to still look quite good even if it’s slightly off, whereas with digital, I think it looks like a mistake. The precision medium format and digital wedding photographers might turn their nose up at my acceptance of imprecision, but I believe this is precisely what makes my images appealing; they have an emotional, non-automated quality to them. If interested, you may find the blog below speaks to this a bit. But yeah, I will see if I can put a new blog together about some of my techniques. Thanks!

        https://johnnymartyr.wordpress.com/2019/03/10/the-wedding-of-lisa-jason/

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  4. What a great post! This really resonated with me as originally like you, I went through a ‘GAS’ phase of buying lots of more affordable cameras, lenses etc. However, since I purchased my Hasselblad 500 C/M, I really have no more need in buying any more cameras and would now opt for quality over quantity. If I do feel at some stage, that I need some more equipment, it would be to add something to my Hasselblad. I love the photos I take with this camera and have learnt a great deal about photography from using it and am still learning. To me, the expense of this particular camera has been worth every penny for the pure joy I get from using it and I do feel my photography has improved 👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome Natalie! I love to hear about photographers finding their perfect camera that puts an end to GAS! For some of us, it takes more cameras to try till we find just the right one. It’s not always the most expensive one. But often times, if we’d just sprung for the expensive one closer to the beginning of our journey’s we’d have saved some time! Looking forward to more Hassey shots on your blog!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well said, some painters have a favorite brush, any brush would work for a master they say but the master has a favorite. When I use my M3 and 50 Cron time slows down and every so often magic happens.

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  6. Great post, Johnny. I’ve never been a camera collector, always just had the one working body and a couple of lenses. I managed to get an unbelievable deal on a used Leica R3 and three Leica lenses (28, 50, 135) when I worked in a camera shop, and when that camera eventually died, I simply bought another R3. My justification at the time in spending what was still, for me, a substantial amount of money was – my photography deserves this. Call me pretentious if you wish, I’ve been called that since I was seventeen years old and I’m now in my 50s and still couldn’t give a fuck!

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